Malu Lambert: Does Cape Rosé lack identity?

By , 9 October 2023



Is there a more muddled category than South African rosé? I asked myself this question recently while blind tasting through 20 of them. Let’s start with the colours. The whole gamut was there, from onion, coppery tones veering to orange to the fashionably pale blush, and the not so hip deep pinks. While labels were out of sight, I did have some of the analyses: blend components, residual sugar and alcohol.

The out-take? There are no rules when it comes to rosé. It can be 98% sauvignon and 2% of pinking merlot to qualify or it can be blended chardonnay and pinot noir, which is really another style all-together isn’t it? Looking at you, Haute Cabrière… It can be bone-dry or teeth-achingly sweet. It seems the only caveat is that it needs to be pink-ish in hue. And sometimes, barely at all.

Method hardly seems to matter, whether its direct press, skin maceration or saignée. Or more cynically, an afterthought of blending together whatever is leftover in the cellar.

Taking the macro perspective, you could conclude Cape rosé is floundering, but zoom in a bit closer however and premiumisation of the category is on the rise.

“Introducing the concept of ‘dry’ rosé into South Africa did move the needle quite significantly on sales,” comments Mike Ratcliffe, reflecting on his time when he headed Warwick in Stellenbosch.  Warwick then cleverly put the word ‘dry’ on the label of the First Lady Rosé (presumably the first to do so), a move that saw it flying off the shelf.

“The popularity of the wine was also a result of our change in style. It tasted good. The recipe was simple: one gram per litre of sugar, 11 per cent alcohol and a colour light enough so that I could read a newspaper through it.

“Simplistic maybe, but effective, especially at a time when people were seeking to moderate their sugar and alcohol intakes. It caught on and seems to have stuck.”

That it has, recent data pulled by the current Warwick CEO, Christiana von Arnim shows that the First Lady is still the top selling pink, at least from retailers Pick n Pay, Checkers, SPAR/TOPS at SPAR, Macro as well as Norman Goodfellows. Looking at the same statistics, the next big sellers are respectively Haute Cabrière Pinot Noir Rosé, Vrede en Lust Jess Rosé (made from pinotage, shiraz, grenache), Babylonstoren Mourvèdre Rosé, Diemersdal Sauvignon Rosé and Delheim Pinotage Rosé.

While the cultivars may literally be all over the shop, what these popular wines do have in common is sophisticated packaging, generally in flint to show off their hues. (It must be stated the biggest selling rosé in the country is Fourth Street in total volumes, but this conversation is about the premium sector.)

Globally, pinks have been enjoying an exponential rise in sales, on the tailcoats of the seemingly unstoppable Prosecco. And it’s true, from data captured in 2020 exports from Provence rose an impressive 500 per cent over a 15-year period. Not quite as extreme, but impressive nonetheless, over the last decade South Africa has doubled its production.

It’s interesting to note that according to the annual report compiled by the Observatoire Mondial du Rosé, pink wine consumption saw a dip in 2020 and 2021, mainly in France, the US, and Italy. Despite this, worldwide rosé production continues to rise, led by France, Spain, and the US. France remains dominant in production, consumption, exports, and imports.

“10 years ago, we didn’t have any rosés over the R100 price point,” says Rebecca Constable, previously the senior wine buyer for Woolworths, now head of key accounts for Beck Family Estates.

“Waterford Rosemary was the first premium rosé that hit our shelves. At the time it differentiated itself in the category. It was paler in colour, not overtly sweet and a wine in its own right. It had quite a following and continues to be successful at R150 a bottle.

When it comes to rosé, she says there are two distinct camps ‘sweeter and cheaper and then wines that are higher in price, paler in colour, and more fruit driven’.

“You can see this with the Woolies consumer. The Cape range, the entry price point label range, is consistently a top seller along with the natural sweet, but alongside this you have the likes of Tranquille, Simonsig, Warwick and Kadette as firm favourites.

“There was a tendency for rosé to have been produced as a bit of an afterthought, but now the category is standing up, with a focus on quality and following global trends in terms of visuals, packaging and meeting a lifestyle need.”

Tagging onto this enter the emerging ‘super-premiums’, wines with style, and substance. Such as Holden Manz’s duo (Rothko and Hiro), Anthonij Rupert Jean Roi Cap Provincial Rosé, La Motte Vin de Joié Rosé and the Ken Forrester Silver Rosé.

Constable has noticed how these wines,are ‘mimicking perfume cues’ with the use of interesting bottle shapes and glass stoppers to differentiate themselves. “They look completely different to their white and red counterparts. The packaging is how this category is continuing to carve its own identity. They look pretty and I am sure some people buy them more for the packaging than the wine!”

L’Avenir Glenrosé 2023.

It’s not just about looks, specialisation also key in the premium category. Take L’Avenir Glenrosé, made from a single-vineyard (note the glass-stopper). And, of course the ambitious Pink Valley Wines situated on the slopes of Stellenbosch’s Helderberg. Owned by the Oddo family of Provence, Vallon Glauges it’s the only South African winery custom-fitted to exclusively make rosé.

On the fringe of all this glamour, the Cape’s new wave cohort are experimenting with pinks too. Just bottled is the ‘neon pink’ barbarossa rosé from the white-sand soils of Gedeelte Wines up the West Coast. The only wine of its kind in South Africa. Hand-pressed into tank, the wine then saw six months in old French oak. A boutique producer, John Bouwer says he’ll be able to scale the wine to 10 000 bottles, a significant number for his business when you consider his overall production is tiny.

Samantha Suddons of VineVenom pushes the envelope even further for ‘Shining’. A rosé NV made from carignan and touriga naçional. Made in an oxidative style with barrel head space, light under flor ageing and a maderised component.

Upon reflection, there may be no more stylistically divergent category in the Cape, but it certainly is healthy. It just needs focus and a trimming down of widespread cultivar use as well as of production methods.

  • Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert

  • Entries for the inaugural Prescient Rosé Report are now open. Find out more here.


4 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    larry Jacobs | 18 October 2023

    Bottom line is that rosé sales, which for many years continue to be the single largest category in France, have globally been growing for the past two decades. In global terms, it’s currently heading for a cross-over point of the sales graph that references global red wine sales VS rosé sales. In Australia, the rosé section at any bottle shop now extends down the full length of any isle, no matter how long the isle is.
    Time to sharpen your rosé skills. There is no reason why what was achieved with chenin blanc in SA can not be achieved with rosé in the coming decade. Just have a plan. Start a rose forum. Have a national Rose Championship. Be creative. All things you are good at already!

    FrankH | 10 October 2023

    From an European consumer point of view Cape rosé unfortunately seems to lag years behind. In general the vast majority of them taste rather lackluster – okay, that’s what they have in common with 85 % of European rosé. But what even the products from the much loved young(er) guns can’t offer, is a certain depth and courage, which would make them more appealing and exciting. Nowadays so many high-quality producers from France, Spain, Austria and even Germany experiment with thrilling rosé-versions, that there is simply no need to look in the SA wine regions for an alternative. You mentioned one of the few exceptions and I hope that we might get much more rosé like Sam’s stunning ‘Shining’ in the near future from the Cape winelands.

      GillesP | 10 October 2023

      I am completely on the same page. The consumer purchase rose from a known brand name here , not knowing what a good rose taste like. Hence the success of Warwick and a couple of others. Undrinkable for me . My best SA rose go to is invariably the Waterkloof Cape Coral. 100% Mourvedre. The closest thing I can find from good Provence rose and at a very affordable price of R85 per bottle

    GillesP | 9 October 2023

    That category is a complete mix bag. Every estate jumping in to follow the worldwide trend, which is great but apart from a handful, nobody applying their mind to produce something of quality. Using any kind of grape variety available is not well thought. Please look at Provence and get inspired.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.